Monday, January 25, 2010

A gullible mark for The Hustle

In a scam worthy of “The Hustle” itself, local taxpayers have given Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth – the world’s most powerful blonde – £400,000 to make a TV series in Birmingham.

In the BBC series, the team of likable rogues scam and swindle the gullible, vain and dim out of their ill-gotten gains with a series of clever, if improbable, cons.

That, we must assume, is what Ms Murdoch’s production company Kudos did when they relieved local taxpayers of £400,000 via one of the region’s more pointless quangos.

The quango Screen West Midlands put up one tenth of the cost of making the current series.

The money has gone to a company called Kudos which makes some of the top drama series on television. Its credits include “Spooks”, “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes”.

It also made “The Fixer” but you can’t win them all.

Kudos is owned by the Shine Group – which is, in effect, part of the multi-billion-pound worldwide media empire controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

Its chief executive, founder and owner is Elisabeth Murdoch, who is not short of a bob or two.

She established Shine after signing a deal with BskyB, which agreed to buy Shine’s programming for two years. Shine has grown into the fourth largest independent film-maker in the country.

Ms Murdoch is one of the beneficiaries of the Murdoch family trust, which owns 28.5 percent of News Corporation, estimated in 2005 to be worth about $6.1 billion.
Shine joined the top tier of independent production companies when it bought three of its rivals, including Kudos, for a combined £65 million.

The society magazine “Tatler” described Ms Murdoch as the world's most powerful blonde, beating Prince Harry's girlfriend Chelsy Davy into second place.

She’s so rich and famous she got to enjoy breakfast with Barack Obama’s wife Michelle and Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister’s wife, at Number 10 when the First Couple first visited Britain.

So why would Screen West Midlands give one of her companies a £400,000 bung?
The quango, which enjoys a multi-million-pound budget thanks to money from Advantage West Midlands and £11.2 million of Lottery funds, claims bringing production of “The Hustle” to Birmingham has generated £1.2 million for the local economy.

It also claims it creates local jobs and helps establish the region as a location for film-makers.

It certainly does nothing for Birmingham as a tourist attraction because “The Hustle” is firmly set in London.

Brum is heavily disguised and location shots of the capital’s skyline are regularly included so viewers can be sure of where all this is supposedly taking place.

(At least this isn’t as bad as the BBC’s other locally-shot series. “Survivors”, which displays a post-apocalyptic world of gang crime, filth, squalor poverty and danger which does nothing fat all for the city’s international image.)

It may be that some of the cast and drew, which includes stars Robert Vaughn, Adrian Lester and Robert Glenister, have spent some money in the region.

But the crude calculation that the 100 cast and crew generate £1.2 million of economic activity in 12 weeks is just guesswork while the £400,000 is hard cash.
Sarah Arnesen of Screen West Midlands claimed a while ago: “We are effectively investing in the worldwide exploitation of the series by Kudos.

“Reliable sales projections for this series tells us that even if the series does half as well as each of the last five series abroad, we will still recoup our investment.”

I asked Sarah Arnesen of Screen West Midlands if it would rake off a share of the profits.

She said: Reliable sales figures indicate that our return on investment is likely to be around 110 per cent over the next couple of years, which means our investment will go back into further film and TV projects in the region bring more jobs to the West Midlands.”

I still didn’t understand so I asked: Does that mean the quango expects to make a 10 per cent profit on its investment over the next two years – turning £400,000 into £440,000?

The answer seems to be no. What Ms Arnesen said was: “Screen WM is a not for profit organisation and therefore all returns on any investments made through our Advantage Media Prodcution Fund are ploughed back into the fund and used for subsequent investment in future film and TV production in the West Midlands.

“The return on the investment is measured not only in cash terms, but by spend (£1.2 million) and its multiplier effect on our economy, as well as job creation, reputation, and marketing the region.”

Screen West Midlands is run by Suzie Norton, an ex-TV reporter and parliamentary lobby correspondent.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance revealed last year her expenses are running at just over £1,000 a month and include membership of the exclusive, invitation-only Ivy Club in London.

Over £5,000 went on meals and drinks as part of “business entertainment” and almost £900 on taxi fares as Ms Norton was whisked to premieres and international film festivals, lunch meeting after lunch meeting and dinner meeting after dinner meeting.

Aside from Ms Norton’s personal expenses, Screen WM spent £23,500 entertaining last year.

So their profit on “The Hustle”, if it materialises, will more or less keep the staff in the manner to which they have become accustomed for about 12 months.

And, despite reviews in the local and national press, a huge amount of publicity due to the controversy surrounding it and £380,000 of Screen WM “investment”, the taxpayer-funded movie “1 Day” grossed a meagre £44k on its opening weekend at 80 cinemas nationwide.

Worse, people in Birmingham haven’t even had access to the film as all of the city’s cinemas chose not to screen it after a warning from the West Midlands Police that it may provoke clashes between rival gangs.

Perhaps Ms Norton spent too long rubbing shoulders with MPs and thinks it’s OK to spend taxpayers’ money like it’s going out of fashion (which it is).

Maybe that’s why bunging a few hundred grand to the one of the world’s biggest media empires is par for the course at a quango where money’s no object.

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